WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama appealed directly to senators' desire for history-making change and to their short-term political fears Sunday by urging them to stand together and overhaul the nation's health care system.
At the request of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama made a trip to the Capitol during a rare weekend legislative session to ask rank-and-file Democrats to work for compromise and do it quickly. Vice President Joe Biden joined Obama for the closed-door meeting.
Greeted by applause, Obama spoke for 45 minutes and took no questions, according to several lawmakers. He highlighted the progress he said his administration has made on jobs, and focused on the implications for remaking a health care system that represents one-sixth of the economy.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Obama described the health care bill as the "most significant social legislation in decades so don't lose it."
Reid called the weekend session as he races to finish the 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill by Christmas. The legislation would provide coverage to more than 30 million additional people over the next decade with a new requirement for nearly everyone to purchase insurance. There would be new marketplaces where people could shop for and compare insurance plans, and lower-income people would get subsidies to help them afford coverage.
The federal-state Medicaid program for the poor would grow, and there would be a ban on unpopular insurance company practices such as denying coverage based on medical history.
With midterm congressional elections looming next year, Democrats are determined to revamp health care, achieving a long-sought goal that has proven elusive for decades.
"In short, he (Obama) pledged to work with us in any meaningful way that he can. .... There are still a few things we have to work out in the bill, but issues are being narrowed as we speak," Reid told reporters after the meeting.
Obama and Reid must unite liberals and moderates in the 60-member caucus, even as moderates balk over abortion and the option of government-run health insurance. Sixty is the precise number needed to overcome Republican stalling tactics in the 100-member Senate, so Reid doesn't have a vote to spare.
"I think if we don't deliver, we've got a problem," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when asked on a Sunday talk show about the political consequences for Democrats should they fail to produce a bill.
Moderate and liberal lawmakers met throughout the day Saturday to try to find a compromise on the government insurance plan that they could all support and that could also potentially attract Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the one Republican to vote for the Democrats' health overhaul bill in committee.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the second-ranking Senate GOP leader, said that right now his party remained united against the Democratic bill, which he complained would "get the government very deeply involved into health care at an enormous expense."
A new idea being discussed was national nonprofit insurance plans that would be administered by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the popular Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., a key centrist, was enthusiastic about the idea, which she's proposed in different forms in the past. "I think it bodes well for being able to do what we want to do, which is to create greater choice and options in the marketplace," she said.
Liberals were cool to the proposal, holding out for a fully government-run plan.
"I'm willing to talk to anybody about anything but they haven't sold it yet," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "We have compromised enough on the public option."
Someone will have to give. But despite the apparent divide, lawmakers and White House officials sounded increasingly optimistic.
"It's going really well. They're having a lot of really productive meetings," Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, told reporters in the Capitol Saturday. "It's about where it should be at this point in the legislative process."
While negotiations continued behind the scenes, the Senate rejected a Lincoln-sponsored amendment to limit the tax deductions insurance companies take for what they pay their top executives. The vote was 56-42 on a measure that needed 60 votes.
Lawmakers also voted down a measure by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to limit plaintiff lawyers' fees in medical malpractice cases, a politically fraught issue that pits Republicans against Democrats. The vote was 32-66.
The House passed its version of a health care bill last month. The competing versions would have to be reconciled before sent to Obama for his signature.
A busy schedule limited Obama's opportunities to speak directly to senators as they work to complete the legislation. The president will be in Oslo Dec. 10 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize and then plans to attend climate change talks in Copenhagen shortly thereafter. Obama heads to Hawaii on Dec. 23 for Christmas.